How about a Hugo Award for Science Fiction?


As some will know, I got heavily into the Hugo awards 13 years ago during my efforts at becoming an eBook publisher in the SF field. The Hugo award is voted on by the fans who attend the annual World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, a moderately small voting pool (under 1000 of the typical 4000 to 7000 attendees will vote.)

The most important award and 2nd most voted on is the one for best Novel. The least important, but most voted on award is the one for best movie.

But still, for a long time, though both SF and Fantasy qualified for the award, the best Novel went exclusively to Science Fiction (with one dab into alternate history by Phillip K. Dick) and usually to hard, ideas-based SF. This went on until 2000 when the superb hard-SF novel "A Deepness in the Sky" won. The drama award was also heavily into SF, though it had some deviations, such as the coverage of Apollo XI and a few films in the 80s.

But in 2001, for the first time, a Fantasy novel won the best novel Hugo. Not just any fantasy novel, but a children's novel, Harry Potter 4. Of course, the Harry Potter series is the most remarkable success not just in fantasy, but in publishing, so this is not too shocking. What's surprising is that in 2002, 2004 and 2005 a fantasy novel would win best novel. At the same time, fantasies won all the best movie awards and all of the new best TV episode award until 2005. (Read on...) To top it off, the 2003 Hugo for best novel went to Hominids. I know Rob Sawyer, the author and he's a good guy and a good writer, but this novel, while very good, just didn't hit me as up to the standards of most of the other Hugo novel winners before it. Sorry Rob, but I think the hometown advantage played a role in getting you this award.

So where does that leave us? Why this sudden shift? Is it a shift in the taste of the fans? They are still voting for SF mostly in the short fiction awards, though fantasy is making its way up there. Is it a surge in the quality of fantasy combined with a drop in the quality of SF? Fans are indeed asking where the SF novels to challenge these fantasy winners are.

The radical suggestion? Revise the award and say it's for science fiction, not fantasy. Of course, don't be so insane as to attempt to define the difference. That's up to the fans as they nominate. If they still want to nominate and vote for fantasy, so be it. Back when fantasy was shut out of the Hugos, the World Fantasy Award was created to recognize it. So let's keep it that way and have two awards, and let people decide on their own wish of the winners of the two categories is better.

Added note, due to comments: I don't actually think this theme-change would actually happen, it is partly tongue-in-cheek. I hope it's realized the title "how about a Hugo for Science Fiction" is meant to be an ironic statement. (Not like rain on your wedding day.)


Let me see if I get this straight: for decades, both Fantasy and SF were eligible to win Hugos, but SF always won.

Then, for a few years, Fantasy starts winning.

So now to "correct" the "problem" you want to change the rules so that only SF wins?


Exactly! It is the World Science Fiction Convention for the World Science Fiction Society, and the former official name of the award which was dropped as too generic was the "Science Fiction Achievement Award."

But the suggestion to change the rules was a bit tongue in cheek. The real question is why this sudden shift, from 100% SF to 80% Fantasy? Is it a change in demographic, a change in tastes of the same demographic or a real change in the quality of work being done in each genre.

There have been some other changes, possibly correlated, possibly not. There's been a move away from U.S. writers who used to dominate. This year there were no US best novel nominees (in part due to the convention being in Scotland, perhaps) and in recent years there have been good supplies of Canadian and British writers on the nominee list, and only 2 American winners in the last 5 years. Consider that in the all the over 50 years prior, it was all U.S. winners, except for 2 by Arthur C. Clarke, one by John Burnner, and one by William Gibson, a U.S. expatriate living in Vancouver. Not that this is a bad trend (I'm not an American myself after all!) but it is quite a shift as well.

As the main campaigner to get the graphic novel "Watchmen" declared elgible for Best Novel Hugo in 1988, i think you can anticipate that i'm going to disagree with you.

And where i disagree is your definitions -- possibly implicit and unconsidered definitions on your part -- which lead you to the conclusion that SF is a thing apart from fantasy.

It ain't, you know.

In fact, Science Fiction is a subset of Fantasy.

Therefore, no matter what rules you may make, a fantasy novel always has and always will win the Hugo -- the only distinction being that sometimes it'll be swords-n-sorcery and sometimes it'll be computers-n-blasters.

Much of Andre Norton's core output was easily and eagerly accepted as "SF", but is really fantasy with a thin "SF" gloss. Where do you put it?

My own brother David's "Path of the Fury" is a pure space-opera adventure, with savage pirate raids on weak worlds, powered battle armour and oddball stardrives and enhanced human beings and a fully aware AI controlling what is essentially a PT boat with the sheer power of a battlecruiser... And Tisiphone, a demiurge, one of the Greek Furies, as a major character.

Where would you put that one?

Like I said, we all have our definitions of what is SF and what is fantasy (including your definition that SF is a subset of fantasy.) We will never conclude that debate. I will point out however, that if it really is a subset then it's actually pretty easy to divide (in your mind) the SF/Fantasy from the non-SF/Fantasy.

Anyway, the point of this old blog post was to remark upon the recent shift, and to provacatively wonder if we like it. The most you could ever do would be to tell people, "Draw in your own mind the line between SF and Fantasy (or if you prefer SF and non-SF forms of fantasy) and pick the SF part for the Hugo, and nominate the other part for the World Fantasy Award. People can draw the line any way they like, but on average I think this would not have given awards to Harry Potter, American Gods or Paladin of Souls. Possibly some others would have changed but I am guessing not. Harder to say on JS&Mr. N

In my opinion, attempts to wall off "science fiction" from "fantasy" are doomed in any popularly-voted award, unless you really want highly activist awards administrators making value judgements. (And WSFS has shown time and again that activist administrators making anything but technical rulings (word length and suchlike) are going to get stomped on.) What's wrong with simply trusting the voters' judgement? Sure, sometimes the voters don't select the things I like (in fact, that's usually the case), but I don't then campaign to change the rules so that things I don't personally like aren't even eligible. Did you nominate and vote this year, Brad?

Sorry, Kevin, you may want to re-read the proposal which is actually very explicit about the points you bring up. It would be folly to ask anybody (but the nominating fans themselves) to distinguish between F and SF. While the suggestion is mostly tongue-in-cheek, it is certainly within the perview of the WSFS to decide, if it wants, to state the theme of the awards. It probably would not want to, people are clearly voting for the fantasy.

The award certainly has a theme. While voters could nominate non-F&SF if they wished to, and the administrators would probably obey them, they don't. They don't because they have that theme. Definitions are not needed nor are they a great idea.

As for the worldcon, I'll be back next year after missing the last few years due to Burning Man and (in this year's case) travel logistics.

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